Why do you not accept the Gospel of Barnabas?
1. The meaning and importance of the Gospel of Barnabas
The Gospel of Barnabas (in the following called GB) was written between the 14th and 16th century after Christ. Two manuscripts exist, one in Spanish and one in Italian (but none in Greek, Latin or Hebrew). In the Christian world it never gained much if any importance, because according to non-Muslim opinion it is part of a series of falsified Gospels which cannot claim any authenticity.
Why did this text, which contains a many teachings that deviate from the statements in the Bible, become so important in the Islamic world? The following analysis is aimed at answering this question, as well as showing the reasons why its claim to be an authentic Gospel cannot be accepted by any informed and sober reader.
Our answer is largely a shortened, slightly adapted form of Lecture 20: The Gospel of Barnabas as an example for the Christian-Muslim controversy of the well known contemporary religious scholar Christine Schirrmacher. See: Christine Schirrmacher, „Der Islam 2“ (Neuhausen/Stuttgart: Hänssler, 1994), p. 268-289. ISBN 3-7751-2133-1.
The writings of the GB were first mentioned by European authors in the 18th Century under the name of Gospel of Barnabas, and during the 19th and 20th centuries became subject to Christian-Muslim controversy. While virtually all non-Muslims consider the GB as a forgery dating from the time of transition from the late medieval to the modern period, most Muslims with only a few exceptions consider the GB to be the only existing true Gospel of Jesus Christ from the 1st Century AD. Even today, in many Muslim countries the question of authenticity of the GB is a focus of Christian-Muslim debate.
It remains unclear under what circumstance, with what intention and by which author the GB was written. It is easier to find an answer to the question of when the text was written. There are many indications that the text dates from between the 14th and the 16th century. The question about the purpose and the circumstances of the Gospel is much harder. Non-Muslims generally believe that a former Christian who had converted to Islam and who was therefore familiar with both Christianity and Islam, could have written such a Gospel.
Since the 19th century, Muslims, on the other hand, have generally supported the view that the GB is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ, which contrary to the other four falsified Gospels, contains the objective truth, namely the Islamic teachings. Muslim authors attempt to prove the veracity of the GB by searching for traces or precursors of the texts in the early Christian Church history. Several documents stemming from the early Christian Church are cited to prove that the author of the BG is the same one as the author of those early writings.
These are the short letter of Barnabas (which contains only 21 short chapters), the Barnabas File, (a Greek text from the 5th century which has been wrongly attributed to Barnabas), the Codex Barocci 39 (a short fragment of text), the Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis (from the 4th/5th century AD), which mentions a Gospel of Barnabas, and the List of the 60 Canonical Books (from the 7th – 8th century). None of these documents, nor the history of the early Christian Church itself give any indication that there has ever been a link with the GB, which is the topic of Christian-Muslim controversy today.
2. The content of the Gospel of Barnabas
The only remaining complete manuscript is the Codex 2662, written in Italian, which has 222 chapters and is kept in the National Library of Austria. Its Italian title is: Vero euangelio di essu chiamato chrissto nouo profeta mandato da DIO modo seconda la descritione di barnaba apostolo suo. It contains a dedication by Johannes Friedrich Cramer dated June 20, 1713 for Prince Eugene of Savoy. In the following, we always refer to the reputable edition and translation of this manuscript by: Lonsdale and Laura Ragg (Publishers), “The Gospel of Barnabas”. Edited and Translated from the Italian MS in the Imperial Library at Vienna. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907 (in the following abbreviated as RR).
The GB, which contains Jewish, Christian and Muslim elements, describes the life of Jesus Christ and His Apostles from the annunciation of Jesus birth to His death, which is described in the GB corresponding to frequent Muslim descriptions of the crucifixion: Not Jesus, but Judas died on the cross.
The GB describes the escape of Jesus parents to Egypt, Jesus travels, miracles, parables and teachings, the Last Supper, the betrayal, the crucifixion of Judas and Jesus ascension into Heaven. The main part of the GB is dedicated to Jesus’ teachings, especially that of His apostles.
3. Bible and Quran in the GB
Although the reader is often reminded of the Qur’an, the Qur’an is never quoted verbatim. However, the author has included a number of quotes from the Latin Bible translation Vulgata. The BG quotes or mentions 22 of the 39 books of the Old Testament, which the author seems to know well. He also quotes several apocryphal writings. The author alludes directly or indirectly to 19 of the 27 books of the New Testament. In the GB, Mohammed is prophesized to be the envoy of God. At his coming he will be given outstanding characteristics, namely the spirit of insight and counsel…. knowledge and strength….fear and love….. wisdom and prudence… compassion and mercy... justice and piety….mildness and patience. (RR, XLIV/105).
4. Jesus Christ and Crucifixion
Already in the beginning, the GB criticizes that many who pretend to be pious spread the reprehensible teaching, that Jesus was the Son of God. Jesus fights back when they want to call him Son of God or God: I am a mortal just like all other human beings (RR LII/122). When Peter calls Him the Son of God, Jesus swears by Heaven, that He was only a man (RR XCII/214+XCIV/216 u. a.).
Instead, Jesus is called Saint of God, Servant of God or A great Prophet of God. In the GB he insists again and again that he is only human, dust and clay. It is Satan who makes unbelievers think that Jesus is God and Gods Son. Jesus explains to His apostle Barnabas: If the people had not called Jesus God, Jesus would have entered Paradise when he departed this world. In the Gospel of Barnabas, Jesus says: I tell you that if I had not been called God, I would have been taken to Paradise when I leave this world. (RR, CXII/256).
Jesus answers the question of what was the gravest sin, saying it is having false Gods. A person is guilty of having false Gods when he declares Jesus as God. Because of the number of statements that Jesus is not the Son of God, and the insistent emphasis given these statements, one could gain the impression that the main teaching of the GB is the rejection of the Christian doctrine that Jesus is God.
Although Jesus is not the Son of God, he heals the sick, but always stresses that it is God who truly heals the illness. It is impossible for Jesus to forgive sinners. As Servant of God he can merely ask God for the forgiveness of the sins of others. (RR, LXXI/164).
The purpose of Jesus’ mission is to send a prophet to Israel, to remind Judea and Israel of Gods law: It is a prophet of God who is sent to the people of Israel, to convert Judea to His heart and to change the Law of the Lord in Israel, as is written in the Law of Moses (RR, II/7).
In the GB Jesus is not the Messiah, unlike in the New Testament and the Qur’an. Rather, Mohammed is called the Messiah. He is the one Jesus wants to serve: I am Gods servant who wants to serve the Messenger of God [i.e.Muhammad]. (RR, CCVI/454).
But Jesus is not only Gods envoy and servant and a human being who reminds Israel and Judea of Gods law. Furthermore, He also has the role of John the Baptist, who is not mentioned in the GB: Jesus prepares the way for Mohammed, God’s envoy, who will save the world.
During the Last Supper with His apostles, Jesus already knows that Judas will betray Him. Jesus tells His apostles that someone will try to kill him. However, He is confident that God will save Him before the crucifixion. Jesus will therefore not die, but will live forever. Rescuing Him from crucifixion is a sign of God’s love. Truly, Jesus should have been punished because the people have called him God. But because He stressed the truth again and again – that He is not the messiah and not God - another sinner will suffer in His place.
In the course of the narrative it becomes clear that it is Judas who will die in Jesus’ stead. Judas had hoped that Jesus would become the King of Israel. He planned to betray Him and to deliver Him into the hands of the priests, the scribes and the Pharisees.
The last eight chapters of the GB contain the description of the crucifixion, which could be seen as the interpretation of the Qurans telling of the story in sura 4:157-158: Judas betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of gold and leads the soldiers to Him. For fear of them, Jesus flees into a house while the remaining eleven apostles have fallen into a deep sleep. Then God orders the four Archangels Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Uriel to take Jesus from this world. They take Jesus through a south facing window and take Him up into the third Heaven, where He joins the angles in their praises of God.
While Jesus thus escapes his persecutors with the help of God, Judas becomes like Jesus in looks and speech. The people think that he is Jesus, although he tries to explain what really happened. The soldiers take Judas and bind him. Judas is led to the high priest. He has become so much like Jesus that everyone believes that Jesus Himself stands before them. Even the other apostles, His mother and His friends no longer doubt that the real Jesus has been caught. Judas continues to explain who he is, but nobody believes him. The high priest, the elders, the scribes and the Pharisees all agree that it is Jesus Himself, because God had decided that Judas must suffer the cruel death he had wanted to deliver the other to with his betrayal (vgl. RR, CCXVII/478).
Judas is then tortured and mocked. Finally, he is crucified and calls out (just like in the New Testament): My God, why hast thou forsaken me (RR,CCXVII/480)? Then, Judas dies on the cross.
Subsequently, some of the apostles steal Judas body in the night and hide him. Afterwards, they proclaim that Jesus had risen, which causes a great confusion. The high priest orders that this rumor is not to be passed on.
The following chapter confirms that Jesus has risen into the Third Heaven. He confirms specifically that He is not dead. Jesus again confirms his innocence, that He has not called Himself the Son of God, so that on the Day of Judgment the demons may not mock Him. Only the people have called Him God and Son of God. God himself, however, had decided that He should be mocked in this world through the death of Judas, because all those present were convinced that it was Jesus who had been crucified. This mocking would continue until the coming of Mohammed, Gods envoy (see RR, CCXX/484).
Then Judas orders Barnabas to write a Gospel which Barnabas promises to do. Jesus assures His apostles once again that He has not died and risen. Rather, Judas had been crucified in His place. (RR, CCXXI/486).
5. Is the Gospel of Barnabas an Islamic gospel?
The BG contains Islamic thinking, which reminds the reader strongly of the Qur’an or the Islamic tradition, although Islam is not mentioned, only Mohammed. The following statements contain the strongest allusions:
The BG makes the accusation of falsification of the Old Testament through the human tradition of false Pharisees (CLXXXIX/424).
Several prophets, such as Adam, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, David and Jesus, Son of Mary, are confirmed as Gods envoys. Adam even recites the Islamic creed.
According to the GB, Jesus birth is announced to Ishmael, not to Isaac. Ishmael was sacrificed by Abraham in Isaacs place.
Jesus is not of the line of David. Mary and Joseph are told by God to keep Jesus away from wine, strong drink and unclean meat, meaning pork. Jesus is only sent to Israel. When Jesus receives His revelations at the age of 30, He is surrounded by a bright light and by angels during His midday prayers, while the Archangel Gabriel hands Jesus a book which enters into His heart.
Jesus names Mohammed as the bigger of the two, and that Jesus is not worthy even to loosen the straps of his shoes. Jesus announces the coming of Mohammed. Here, Jesus assumes the role of John the Baptist of the New Testament. Jesus proclaims the coming of Mohammed, naming his name, and asks God to send him in order to save the world.
The crucifixion of Judas does not correspond with the reports in the gospels, but could be linked with the single mention of the crucifixion in the Quran (Sura 4:157-158).
The GB already undertakes an apologetic interpretation of Christianity when it alludes that the apostle Paul has strayed from some Christian doctrines. For example, Barnabas mourns that He had been tempted by Paul to believe in the Jesus' being the son of God.
6. The Gospel of Barnabas contradicts the Qur’an
On the other hand, we must stress that there are statements in the GB which correspond neither to the Quran nor to the Bible.
Among the statements that are different from the Qur’an are the descriptions of Hell as only a temporary place for sinners. Also contradicting the Quran is the repeated statement that Mohammed is the Messiah. The GB denies several times that Jesus is the Messiah, at the same time, however, it calls Him Chrissto (Christ). The assumption is, therefore, that the author did not know that Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah (the anointed one).
In the Qur’an, Jesus is born in Jerusalem, in the GB in Bethlehem. In the Qur’an, He is born beneath a palm tree, in the GB he is born in an inn. In the Qur’an, Mary suffers great pains at His birth (see Sura 19:23), in the BG she gives birth to Jesus without any pain.
The Quran knows Seven Heavens (Sura 2:29), the gospel of Barnabas nine. The tenth Heaven is Paradise.
The GB clearly supports monogamy, while the majority of Muslims read Sura 4:3 as permitting the taking of up to four wives.
7. Objective errors in the GB
The GB itself points out that the gospel had been falsified. If Barnabas had been a contemporary of Jesus, the New Testament would not have been completed. Thus, the GB would have predicted its own fate.
Furthermore, the geographical and historical errors in the GB confirm that its author did not visit Palestine, and that he cannot have lived in the first century after Christ.
In the GB, Nazareth is a village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. However, Nazareth is located on the top of a hill. According to the BG, Jesus climbs from up Sea of Galilee to Capernaum. However, Capernaum lies directly on the Sea of Galilee. The GB reports that Jesus boarded a ship to sail to Jerusalem. Jerusalem lies inland and cannot be reached by ship. According to the reports of the GB, Nineveh is located near the Mediterranean coast. However, it lies inland on the river Tigris.
The dates of Jesus birth in the GB do not correspond with the historical periods of office of Pilate, Ananias and Caiaphas. The BG speaks of 5,000,000 Roman soldiers in Palestine. In the first century AD, however, this could have been the number of soldiers in the whole of the Roman empire, but not in Palestine. The BG speaks of 17,000 Pharisees in the times of the Old Testament. The party of the Pharisees, however, did not emerge until the second century before Christ.
The GB describes a European summer: everything is bearing fruit (RR, CLXIX/390). In Palestine, however, it rains in winter, and the land is dry in summer.
8. Indications for a medieval time of writing?
Apart from the hints of Islamic doctrine in the GB text, the incompatibilities with Palestinian history and geography, and the lack of a reliable source mentioning the gospel of Barnabas before the beginning of the 18th century, there are many indications in the text itself that support the view that it may have been written between the late medieval 14th and the early modern 16th century. There follow a few of the numerous examples, which make placing the text in the first centuries after Christ more than unlikely:
Already in 1907, the publishers of the first edition of the GB, Lonsdale and Laura Ragg, point to the notable parallels between the GB and the writings of the greatest Italian poet Dante (Alighieri) (1265-1321), for example the Divine Comedy (La divina commedia), especially in respect of Dante’s description of Heaven, Hell and Paradise. With respect to the direct relationship between these two texts, Lonsdale Ragg suspects that the BG and Dante’s Divine Comedy were written independently of each other, but in a very similar environment. Subsequent investigations extended this period up to the 16th century.
The GB supports a lifestyle which strongly reminds the reader of ascetic medieval monks. On many occasions, for example, laughing is condemned as a sin, while crying is a sign of the spiritual life (cf. CII/236).
The GB quotes verses from the Bible according to the Latin Vulgate translation which did not appear until the end of the fourth century and became the official Catholic Bible.
The GB reports that Jesus and His apostles had followed the 40 days (RR, XCII/212). The forty day long Lenten period of fasting before Easter was not introduced until the fourth century AD and was to remind His followers of His suffering and dying, something that was impossible before His death.
The GB mentions a golden coin, the dinari worth 60 minuti (RR, LIV/128). This coin was only used for a short period in medieval Spain, an argument which appears to support the thesis that the GB was written in Spain. The GB mentions wooden barrels to store wine, whereas in the Middle East bags made of leather were commonly used.
Contrary to the Qur’an, the GB reports that Mary gave birth without suffering pain, a teaching which only began in the medieval Church.
The GB emphasizes the importance of alms giving, fasting, pilgrimage and five times daily prayers, which are also observed by Jesus (cf. RR, LXXXIX/206), which points to the text having been written some time after the emergence of Islam.
In the GB, the forbidden fruit in Paradise, which is not given a name in the Old Testament, is called an apple (cf. RR, XXXIX/90); This, too, is a development of the later Church history.
These and other items form the basis on which most non-Muslim commentators of the GB refuse to date the document to as an early part of church history.
9. The introduction of the GB in the Islamic world
It is still not known which Muslim author first mentions the GB. There is evidence of first references to the GB by Muslim apologists from the middle of the 19th century. From this period on, Muslim authors mention more and more frequently that there is an early Christian gospel, which proves the truth of Islam. In this context, we mention especially Muhammad Raschid Rida (1865-1935), a prominent Egyptian apologist, reform theologian and pupil of the even more famous Muhammad ‛Abduh (1849-1905). His key role in the spreading of the GB in the Islamic world was that he commissioned its translation into Arabic in 1907, the same year the English edition and translation by L. and L. Ragg appeared, and added a positive comment supporting the GB. Muhammad Rida was interested in the GB because he was already one of the decisive proponents of Islams superiority over Christianity, and wrote many essays trying to prove that Christianity was illogical, falsified and incredible, referring to the writings of historic-critical theologians.
Among the most comprehensive Muslim studies for the justification of the GB is M.A. Yusseff, “The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Barnabas and the New Testament” (Indianapolis, 1985). In over almost 130 pages, Yusseff attempts to create the perfect chain of narrators (arab. isnād) for the GB to the Barnabas mentioned in the New Testament. He claims the following for his book:
This book is the first in a whole series of writings which are based on a scientific approach…. Let us discover the truth (ibid., p. 1).
To justify the GB as comprehensively as possible, he re-evaluates much of the early Christian Church history. At first, the author tries to use the historical-critical method to prove that Jesus cannot have been God nor the Son of God. He attacks the Trinity and justifies the sending of Muhammad, but does not open up a discussion of the objections against the BG as we have done here. According to Yusseff, Barnabas, after his falling out with Paul, wrote the gospel using the gospel of Matthew, to counter the conspiracy of the followers of Nicholas, who had altered the Biblical text. This group of the followers of Nicholas, who according to Yusseff, declare Jesus to be the Son of God, and who count the apostle Paul among their number, have also written the "Decretum Gelansium” (sic. correctly: Gelasianum), the "forbidden scriptures, of which the GB was one. According to Yusseff, today’s Christian Church stands in the tradition of these followers of Nicholas and therefore rejects the GB and is not the heir of the legitimate, Abrahamic faith. Rather, the Greek-Roman culture influenced the Jewish religious faith towards syncretism. Just like the doctrine of the Trinity, the attempt to worship a human being as God (and here, Yusseff draws a parallel to the deification of Cesar), clearly has pagan origins. The spiritual descendants of Abraham are, spiritually speaking, Muslims. (ibid. p. 123).
In view of the various evaluations and claims, the truth seeking reader will be especially keen to read the original text of the GB with critical openness, to reach his own reliable verdict. It will thereby be important to study a truly reliable translation of the original. The English translations by L. and L. Ragg have been carefully constructed and correspond with scientific standards.
We conclude with just one more question: Can the teachings of the four canonical gospels simply be declared to be the outsider positions of a few erring Pauline Christians? In other words, is it legitimate to comprehensively deny the authority of the writings of the New Testament as Holy Scriptures which constitute Christianity and genuinely give expression of the Christian faith, without at the same time firmly closing ones eyes to the phenomenon of Christian faith and the churches which confess and practice this faith, and which all follow the New Testament?
And finally, how can one accept a text as a genuine gospel, that contains so many errors and contradictions, not only with respect to the Christian Holy Scriptures, but also with respect to the Quran, and which has clear indications that it was written centuries after the emergence of the New Testament and also after the coming of the Qur’an?